Adam J. McKee, Ph.D.
Section 2.2: Elements of Community Policing
Defining the Core Components of Community Policing
The growing trend within communities to participate in the fight against crime and disorder has paralleled a growing recognition by police that traditional crime-fighting tactics alone have a limited impact on controlling crime. Community policing is the synthesis of these two movements.
The foundations of a successful community policing strategy are the close, mutually beneficial ties between police and community members. Community policing consists of two complementary core components, community partnership and problem solving. To develop community partnership, police must develop positive relationships with the community, must involve the community in the quest for better crime control and prevention, and must pool their resources with those of the community to address the most urgent concerns of community members. Problem solving is the process through which the specific concerns of communities are identified and through which the most appropriate remedies to abate these problems are found.
Community policing does not imply that police are no longer in authority or that the primary duty of preserving law and order is subordinated. However, tapping into the expertise and resources that exist within communities will relieve police of some of their burdens. Local government officials, social agencies, schools, church groups, business people—all those who work and live in the community and have a stake in its development—will share responsibility for finding workable solutions to problems that detract from the safety and security of the community.
The Concept of Community
The goal of community policing is to reduce crime and disorder by carefully examining the characteristics of problems in neighborhoods and then applying appropriate problem-solving remedies. The “community” for which a patrol officer is given responsibility should be a small, well-defined geographical area. Beats should be configured in a manner that preserves, as much as possible, the unique geographical and social characteristics of neighborhoods while still allowing efficient service.
Patrol officers are the primary providers of police services and have the most extensive contact with community members. In community policing efforts, they will provide the bulk of the daily policing needs of the community, and they will be assisted by immediate supervisors, other police units, and appropriate government and social agencies. Upper level managers and command staff will be responsible for ensuring that the entire organization backs the efforts of patrol officers.
Effective community policing depends on optimizing positive contact between patrol officers and community members. Patrol cars are only one method of conveying police services. Police departments may supplement automobile patrols with foot, bicycle, scooter, and horseback patrols, as well as adding “mini-stations” to bring police closer to the community. Regular community meetings and forums will afford police and community members an opportunity to air concerns and find ways to address them.
Officers working long-term assignments on the same shift and beat will become familiar figures to community members and will become aware of the day-to-day workings of the community. This increased police presence is an initial move in establishing trust and serves to reduce fear of crime among community members, which, in turn, helps create neighborhood security. Fear must be reduced if community members are to participate actively in policing. People will not act if they feel that their actions will jeopardize their safety.
Although the delivery of police services is organized by geographic area, a community may encompass widely diverse cultures, values, and concerns, particularly in urban settings. A community consists of more than just the local government and the neighborhood residents. Churches, schools, hospitals, social groups, private and public agencies, and those who work in the area are also vital members of the community. In addition, those who visit for cultural or recreational purposes or provide services to the area are also concerned with the safety and security of the neighborhood. Including these “communities of interest” in efforts to address problems of crime and disorder can expand the resource base of the community.
Concerns and priorities will vary within and among these communities of interest. Some communities of interest are long-lasting and were formed around racial, ethnic, occupational lines, or a common history, church, or school. Others form and reform as new problems are identified and addressed. Interest groups within communities can be in opposition to one another—sometimes in violent opposition. Intracommunity disputes have been common in large urban centers, especially in times of changing demographics and population migrations.
These multiple and sometimes conflicting interests require patrol officers to function not only as preservers of law and order, but also as skillful mediators. Demands on police from one community of interest can sometimes clash with the rights of another community of interest. For example, a community group may oppose certain police tactics used to crack down on gang activity, which the group believes may result in discriminatory arrest practices. The police must not only protect the rights of the protesting group, but must also work with all of the community members involved to find a way to preserve neighborhood peace. For this process to be effective, community members must communicate their views and suggestions and back up the negotiating efforts of the police. In this way, the entire community participates in the mediation process and helps preserve order. The police must encourage a spirit of cooperation that balances the collective interests of all citizens with the personal rights of individuals.
The conflicts within communities are as important as the commonalities. Police must recognize the existence of both to build the cooperative bonds needed to maintain order, provide a sense of security, and control crime. Police must build lasting relationships that encompass all elements of the community and center around the fundamental issues of public safety and quality of life. The key to managing this difficult task is trust.
Community Partnership: Core Component One
Establishing and maintaining mutual trust is the central goal of the first core component of community policing—community partnership. Police recognize the need for cooperation with the community. In the fight against serious crime, police have encouraged community members to come forth with relevant information. In addition, police have spoken to neighborhood groups, participated in business and civic events, worked with social agencies, and taken part in educational and recreational programs for school children. Special units have provided a variety of crisis intervention services. So how then do the cooperative efforts of community policing differ from the actions that have taken place previously? The fundamental distinction is that, in community policing, the police become an integral part of the community culture, and the community assists in defining future priorities and in allocating resources. The difference is substantial and encompasses basic goals and commitments.
Community partnership means adopting a policing perspective that exceeds the standard law enforcement emphasis. This broadened outlook recognizes the value of activities that contribute to the orderliness and well-being of a neighborhood. These activities could include: helping accident or crime victims, providing emergency medical services, helping resolve domestic and neighborhood conflicts (e.g., family violence, landlord-tenant disputes, or racial harassment), working with residents and local businesses to improve neighborhood conditions, controlling automobile and pedestrian traffic, providing emergency social services and referrals to those at risk (e.g., adolescent runaways, the homeless, the intoxicated, and the mentally ill), protecting the exercise of constitutional rights (e.g., guaranteeing a person’s right to speak, protecting lawful assemblies from disruption), and providing a model of citizenship (helpfulness, respect for others, honesty, and fairness).
These services help develop trust between the police and the community. This trust will enable the police to gain greater access to valuable information from the community that could lead to the solution and prevention of crimes, will engender support for needed crime-control measures, and will provide an opportunity for officers to establish a working relationship with the community. The entire police organization must be involved in enlisting the cooperation of community members in promoting safety and security. Building trust will not happen overnight; it will require ongoing effort. But trust must be achieved before police can assess the needs of the community and construct the close ties that will engender community support. In turn…this cooperative relationship will deepen the bonds of trust.
To build this trust for an effective community partnership police must treat people with respect and sensitivity. The use of unnecessary force and arrogance, aloofness, or rudeness at any level of the agency will dampen the willingness of community members to ally themselves with the police.
The effective mobilization of community support requires different approaches in different communities. Establishing trust and obtaining cooperation are often easier in middle-class and affluent communities than in poorer communities, where mistrust of police may have a long history. Building bonds in some neighborhoods may involve supporting basic social institutions (e.g., families, churches, schools) that have been weakened by pervasive crime or disorder. The creation of viable communities is necessary if lasting alliances that nurture cooperative efforts are to be sustained. Under community policing, the police become both catalysts and facilitators in the development of these communities.
Community policing expands police efforts to prevent and control crime. The community is no longer viewed by police as a passive presence or a source of limited information, but as a partner in this effort. Community concerns with crime and disorder thus become the target of efforts by the police and the community working in tandem.
The close alliance forged with the community should not be limited to an isolated incident or series of incidents, nor confined to a specific time frame. The partnership between the police and the community must be enduring and balanced. It must break down the old concepts of professional versus civilian, expert versus novice, and authority figure versus subordinate. The police and the community must be collaborators in the quest to encourage and preserve peace and prosperity.
The more conspicuous police presence of the long-term patrol officer in itself may encourage community response. But it is not sufficient. The entire police organization must vigorously enlist the cooperation of community residents in pursuing the goals of deterring crime and preserving order. Police personnel on every level must join in building a broad rapport with community members.
For the patrol officer, police/community partnership entails talking to local business owners to help identify their problems and concerns, visiting residents in their homes to offer advice on security, and helping to organize and support neighborhood watch groups and regular community meetings. For example, the patrol officer will canvass the neighborhood for information about a string of burglaries and then revisit those residents to inform them when the burglar is caught. The chief police executive will explain and discuss controversial police tactics so that community members understand the necessity of these tactics for public and officer safety. The department management will consult community members about gang suppression tactics, and every level of the department will actively solicit the concerns and suggestions of community groups, residents, leaders, and local government officials. In this police/community partnership, providing critical social services will be acknowledged as being inextricably linked to deterring crime, and problem solving will become a cooperative effort.
Problem Solving: Core Component Two Problem solving is a broad term that implies more than simply the elimination and prevention of crimes. Problem solving is based on the assumption that “crime and disorder can be reduced in small geographic areas by carefully studying the characteristics of problems in the area, and then applying the appropriate resources…” and on the assumption that “Individuals make choices based on the opportunities presented by the immediate physical and social characteristics of an area. By manipulating these factors, people will be less inclined to act in an offensive manner.”
The problem-solving process is explained further:
“The theory behind problem-oriented policing is simple. Underlying conditions create problems. These conditions might include the characteristics of the people involved (offenders, potential victims, and others), the social setting in which these people interact, the physical environments, and the way the public deals with these conditions. A problem created by these conditions may generate one or more incidents. These incidents, while stemming from a common source, may appear to be different. For example, social and physical conditions in a deteriorated apartment complex may generate burglaries, acts of vandalism, intimidation of pedestrians by rowdy teenagers, and other incidents. These incidents, some of which come to police attention, are symptoms of the problems. The incidents will continue so long as the problem that creates them persists.”
As police recognize the effectiveness of the problem-solving approach, there is a growing awareness that community involvement is essential for its success. Determining the underlying causes of crime depends, to a great extent, on an in depth knowledge of community. Therefore, community participation in identifying and setting priorities will contribute to effective problem-solving efforts by the community and the police. Cooperative problem solving also reinforces trust, facilitates the exchange of information, and leads to the identification of other areas that could benefit from the mutual attention of the police and the community. The problem-solving process, like community partnership, is self-renewing.
For this process to operate effectively the police need to devote attention to and recognize the validity of community concerns. Neighborhood groups and the police will not always agree on which specific problems deserve attention first. Police may regard robberies as the biggest problem in a particular community, while residents may find derelicts who sleep in doorways, break bottles on sidewalks, and pick through garbage cans to be the number one problem. Under community policing, the problem with derelicts should also receive early attention from the police with the assistance of other government agencies and community members. For example, one police captain reported the following:
“What we found . . . was that maybe some things that we thought were important to them really weren’t that important, and other things we didn’t think were important at all, were very important . . . Like abandoned cars: in one of our areas, that was a very important thing. They were really bugged about all these abandoned cars, and they thought it was a bad police department that wouldn’t take care of them. When we started removing the cars their opinion of us went up, even though because we’d changed priorities we were putting fewer drug addicts in jail.”
Therefore, in addition to the serious crime problems identified by police, community policing must also address the problems of significant concern to the community. Community policing in effect allows community members to bring problems of great concern to them to the attention of the police. Once informed of community concerns, the police must work with citizens to address them, while at the same time encouraging citizens to assist in solving the problems of concern to the police.
The nature of community problems will vary widely and will often involve multiple incidents that are related by factors including geography, time, victim or perpetrator group, and environment. Problems can affect a small area of a community, an entire community, or many communities. Community problems might include the following:
- An unusually high number of burglaries in an apartment complex that are creating great anxiety and fear among residents
- Panhandling that creates fear in a business district
- Prostitutes in local parks or on heavily traveled streets
- Disorderly youth who regularly assemble in the parking lot of a convenience store
- An individual who persistently harasses and provokes community members
In community policing, the problem-solving process is dependent on input from both the police and the community. Problem solving can involve:
- Eliminating the problem entirely. This type of solution is usually limited to disorder problems. Examples include eliminating traffic congestion by erecting traffic control signs, and destroying or rehabilitating abandoned buildings that can provide an atmosphere conducive to crime.
- Reducing the number of the occurrences of the problem. Drug-dealing and the accompanying problems of robbery and gang violence will be decreased if the police and community work together to set up drug counseling and rehabilitation centers. Longer range solutions might include intensifying drug education in schools, churches, and hospitals.
- Reducing the degree of injury per incident. For example, police can teach store clerks how to act during a robbery in order to avoid injury or death and can advise women in the community on ways to minimize the chances of being killed or seriously injured if attacked.
- Improving problem handling. Police should always make an effort to treat people humanely, (e.g., show sensitivity in dealing with rape victims and seek ways to ease their trauma, or increase effectiveness in handling runaway juveniles, drug addicts, drunk drivers, etc., by working with other agencies more closely).
- Manipulating environmental factors to discourage criminal behavior. This can include collaborative efforts to add better lighting, remove overgrown weeds and trim shrubbery, and seal off vacant apartment buildings.
There are as many solutions as there are problems. These solutions range from simple, inexpensive measures to complex, long-term answers that will require significant investment of staff and resources. Problem solving is limited only by the imagination, creativity, perseverance, and enthusiasm of those involved. Community policing allows solutions to be tailor-made to the specific concerns of each community. The best solutions are those that satisfy community members, improve safety, diminish anxiety, lead to increased order, strengthen the ties between the community and the police, and minimize coercive actions. The following example describes such a solution:
“A patrol officer faced with chronic nighttime robberies of convenience stores discovered that a major contributing factor was that cash registers could not be seen from the street, either because of their location within the store or because of posters plastered on front windows. The officer did not identify the “root cause” or ultimate cause of crime, but instead identified an underlying condition that, once addressed, held promise of reducing the number of future convenience store robberies. To identify this underlying problem, the patrol officer talked with and solicited suggestions from convenience store owners and employees, other members of the business community, and community residents. The officer’s identification of a contributing cause of the robberies is a high-leverage accomplishment in terms of its likely positive impact on the frequency of future robberies. Evidence of police concern and soliciting input from the community also reinforces cooperative ties.”
Patrol officers serve as catalysts for joint police and community problem solving endeavors. They are involved with the community on a day-to-day basis, understand its unique physical and social characteristics, are aware of local problems, and when needed can help community members articulate their needs. Many problems within the community can be successfully handled by patrol officers or their immediate supervisors and members of the community—e.g., determining that better lighting would decrease the incidence of muggings at a local park.
All levels of the police organization should contribute to problem solving, depending on the scope and seriousness of the problem. For example, crafting a solution to widespread incidents of spousal assault taking place in several communities in an agency’s jurisdiction might involve multiple levels of police management. Patrol officers may have noticed a correlation between spousal assaults and excessive drinking by the perpetrators, especially at illegal after-hours clubs. The officers, their supervisors, and community members might explore ways to close down these clubs with the help of local zoning and city planning boards. Perpetrators with alcohol problems might be required to attend rehabilitation programs run by a city agency. Meanwhile, mid- and senior-level police managers and community leaders might confer with women’s groups and other social agencies about providing temporary housing and counseling for victims and their families. In addition, members of the community might be able to repair an abandoned building to house the victims.
The problem-solving process relies on the expertise and assistance of an array of social and government agencies and community resources. At the senior command level, police managers might combine forces with a civil abatement agency to condemn and board up crack houses. One police officer seeking a systemwide approach to the problem of spousal assault formed a team comprised of units from the police department and representatives from women’s shelters, the YWCA, nearby military bases, the prosecutor’s office, newspapers, hospitals, and social agencies. A tremendous amount of leverage can be attained through the collaboration and partnership of this type of far-ranging alliance.
Community policing puts new emphasis on tackling the underlying causes of crime by addressing problems at the grassroots level. To maximize the time that the patrol officer can spend interacting with community members, community policing encourages the use of the 911 system only for true emergencies. Nonemergency calls should be handled through other means, including delays in responding and report handling by the police station or sheriff’s office over the telephone or by mail.
These alternative measures require a wide base of support within the community. To obtain this support, the police must instruct residents on the nature of an emergency and on alternative responses to nonemergencies. Alternative responses will need to be thoroughly explained before community members will accept them. The residents should be secure in the knowledge that the police response will be appropriate for the urgency of the demand for service, and that the reduction in the volume of 911 calls will allow officers to spend more time in the community and will maximize the use of the residents’ tax dollars.
Source: Understanding Community Policing: A Framework for Action. p. 13 – 22.
Modification History File Created: 08/10/2019 Last Modified: 08/10/2019
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